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BGE says Northwest Baltimore gas explosion wasn’t its equipment’s fault

Kenny Ebron, of Baltimore, places several flags and stuffed bears as a makeshift memorial near 4200 Labyrinth Road for the victims of a natural gas explosion.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.‘s equipment was not the cause of the gas explosion in Northwest Baltimore that killed two people and seriously injured at least seven others, the utility company said Thursday, indicating that it believed customer-owned equipment might have been at fault.

The company said in a statement that an inspection of its gas and electrical equipment serving the 4200 block of Labyrinth Road “found that all of its equipment — gas mains, gas service pipes and gas meters, as well as electric equipment — has been operating safely.”

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As the investigation into the cause of the blast enters its fifth day Friday, the utility company and various city, state and federal agencies are turning their attention to possible gas leaks in customer-owned pipes and appliances inside the destroyed homes, BGE CEO Carim V. Khouzami said in a phone interview Thursday.

BGE operates the electrical and gas equipment up to and including a house’s meter. But, like with water pipes or electrical wiring, the gas pipes and other equipment that connect the meter to appliances inside of a house, as well as the appliances themselves, are the responsibility of the homeowner.

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“We’ve eliminated some things from question,” Khouzami said. “We’re moving on to other areas, like what was going on inside the house. ... Ultimately, the goal is to stop these things from happening.”

Investigators also are looking into the specific events leading up to the Monday morning blast that killed 20-year-old Morgan State sophomore Joseph Graham and 61-year-old Lonnie Herriott.

There had been no complaints of gas leaks at the affected properties in the past five years, and no customers reported an odor of gas to BGE the day of the explosion, according to the company.

However, Leon Phillips, 64, who lived at 4232 Labyrinth Road, said he smelled “a little bit of gas” when he woke up at around 5 a.m. Monday to get ready for his shift at Lenny’s Deli in Owings Mills. He would’ve reported it, he said, but he stopped noticing the smell as he moved around the house.

“I wasn’t smelling much of it,” he said in an interview Thursday. “It wasn’t strong at all.”

He got to work by 7 a.m. By 10 a.m., firefighters were rushing to his house. He said he told an investigator about the smell after he got back to the scene.

Phillips said he’s never noticed a gas smell before at the home, where he’s lived several years. He said there was someone at the house Sunday doing some sort of maintenance work, but he did not know exactly what the work involved.

Robin and Leroy Johnson, of Owings Mills, who own the three properties that were leveled in the explosion, as well as an adjacent fourth home that was condemned, did not respond to a message left at a number listed for them Thursday.

While the cause of the explosion is still undetermined, local contractor Jonathan Koscielski, owner of Eleet Appliance Repair, said one of the more common issues with customer-owned equipment involves the flexible line connecting gas appliances like stoves to the rigid gas line running through the walls of the home.

These flexible lines allow appliances to be moved when they’re serviced, but over time, they can become damaged, causing gas leaks.

“When you take a paper clip and you keep bending it from one side to the other over time, what happens to the paper clip is it snaps,” Koscielski said.

Homeowners should replace these flexible lines whenever they replace a gas appliance, said Dean Landers, president of Landers Appliance, which is based in Rosedale.

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Most appliances that run on gas, including water heaters, dryers and furnaces, have safety devices built in to prevent leaks, Landers said. But issues can arise nonetheless, particularly with ineffective burners on gas stoves.

“A lot of them, you could turn it, and if the sparker’s not working, it’ll continue to try to spark. But the gas comes out,” Landers said.

But Landers expressed surprise that no one reported the gas leak prior to the explosion, adding that a high volume of gas would be necessary to cause that much damage.

“Maybe it was in a lower portion of the house where nobody would have smelled it, because gas is heavy. It’ll sit on the floor,” Landers said. “Obviously the furnace, the hot water heater and the dryer are normally in the lower level.”

It’s also important to hire a licensed contractor when installing a new gas appliance, Koscielski said, like a plumber or electrician with a gas fitting license.

“I see it all the time where people don’t want to pay for that licensed guy,” Koscielski said. “That’s when your problems can occur.”

The destroyed rental properties passed their city-required inspections in 2019. Inspection records don’t shed much light on what might have gone wrong to cause the gas explosion.

Three of the four affected properties — 4228, 4230 and 4234 Labyrinth Road — are licensed rentals, while a fourth — 4232 — was registered as non-owner-occupied but was not licensed as a rental, according to the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development.

The fourth home was inspected as a rental nonetheless. The Housing Department did not immediately respond to questions about whether renters were allowed to live at the property despite it not being licensed as such.

All four homes passed inspections by a city-contracted inspector on April 15, 2019, according to inspection records obtained Thursday by The Baltimore Sun.

Two of the homes — 4230 and 4234 — passed another round of rental inspections on Oct. 9, 2019, according to the records.

The inspections, required by the city beginning last year, include ensuring gas and electric service “is metered and active.” Those are among nearly two dozen different checklist items, including proper railings, lighting, cleanliness, and hot and cold running water.

But the inspections don’t include a review of any potential gas leaks in the homes’ stoves, ovens, furnaces, water heaters or other appliances.

Baltimore Sun reporters Jessica Anderson and Phil Davis contributed to this article.

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